The Library of Congress started as just that, a library for the use of members of Congress. It occupied space in the Capitol building. Now, of course, it is the national library with buildings of its own. Ainsworth Rand Spofford, the sixth Librarian of Congress, made it happen.
Throughout the 19th century, the Librarian of Congress was simply a political appointment.
Only one of the first five had any kind of literary background. That one could have turned the Library of Congress into a national library. Unfortunately, he lacked the political competence to match his vision.
Spofford followed perhaps the worst qualified of all Librarians of Congress. His early career gave him wonderful qualifications, political skill, and patience. He needed it all.
A brief history of the Library of Congress and its librarians
In 1800, Congress enacted laws to govern moving the capital from Philadelphia to Washington, DC. Up till then, Congress had enjoyed access to the Philadelphia Free Library and, before that, to the New York Society Library. But nothing of the kind existed in the brand new city of Washington. So Congress provided $5,000 to acquire books for its use there. Legislation in 1802 established the position of Librarian of Congress as a presidential appointment.
John James Beckley and Patrick Magruder
Thomas Jefferson appointed political ally John James Beckley as the first Librarian of Congress. Beckley added that position to his duties as Clerk of the House of Representatives. Congress’ Joint Committee on the Library and the President made all the decisions about administration and acquiring books. Beckley merely carried them out.
When Beckley died in 1807, the House selected Patrick Magruder as Clerk and Jefferson appointed him as Librarian of Congress. Like Beckley, Magruder was a political ally of the President. He, too, spent more energy on his clerkship and had little role in making decisions about the library.
The British burned the capitol building in 1814, destroying the entire library collection and all of Magruder’s papers. It appears that all other government papers were preserved. A congressional investigation trying to reconstruct them found an apparent shortage of about $20,000. Magruder resigned his clerkship and, by implication, his librarianship.
James Monroe decided to separate the position of Library of Congress from that of Clerk of the House of Representatives. He appointed George Watterston as Librarian on March 25, 1815. Besides being a lawyer and one of Monroe’s political allies, Watterston was a novelist, poet, playwright, and newspaper editor.
Watterson advocated considering the Library of Congress as a national library. The chair of the Joint Committee even introduced a bill to build a separate library building. Nothing came of it. A fire in the library in 1825 damaged the library, but Congress decided it would be too expensive to fireproof it.
Watterston seems well qualified. He took his position and the library itself more seriously than his predecessors had. Some people caught his vision, but his abrasive personality and shrill Whig politics hampered his effectiveness.
John Silva Meehan
When Andrew Jackson became President, he replaced Watterston with John Silva Meehan, editor of a pro-Jackson newspaper. Meehan served under nine Presidents, far longer than any of his predecessors. He made no enemies and deferred completely to the wishes of the Joint Committee. Its long-time chair, Maryland Senator James Albert Pearce, opposed the idea of the Library of Congress as a national library.
Congress established the Smithsonian Institution in 1846. New England intellectuals Rufus Choat and George P. Marsh urged Congress to designate it as the national library. They considered a national library necessary to establish America’s intellectual credibility and cultural independence from Europe. The final legislation contained no such mandate.
The Institution’s first librarian, Charles Coffin Jewett, laid plans to turn the Institution into both a national library and a national bibliographic institution. But the first Secretary of the Smithsonian Institution, scientist Joseph Henry, had other plans and fired Jewett in 1854.
Henry thought a national library was a good idea. He just didn’t want to see the Smithsonian used for that purpose. When Spofford later sought to turn the Library of Congress into a national library, he had Henry’s full personal support and the full institutional support of the Smithsonian.
On Meehan’s watch, the library collection grew from 16,000 volumes to 55,000 volumes, but a fire on Christmas Eve 1851 destroyed most of them. Congress appropriated $72,000 to build a new library. It envisioned the library taking over the Capitol’s entire western projection, but people who had their offices there refused to move.
Although smaller than originally planned, the fireproof new library was a technological marvel, “the largest room made of iron in the world.”
John G. Stephenson
When Abraham Lincoln became President in 1861, Senator Pearce urged him to keep Meehan as Librarian of Congress. But John G. Stephenson, a physician from Terre Haute, Indiana and staunch Lincoln supporter vigorously sought the position. Lincoln’s blatantly political choice of Stephenson at least didn’t do the library any harm.
Stephenson’s closest connection to books was that his brother was head of the Cincinnati Mercantile Library. He quickly hired one of his brother’s friends as his assistant: Ainsworth Rand Spofford. Spofford essentially ran the library while Stephenson pursued other interests. When Stephenson resigned in 1864, Spofford had lined up congressional support. Lincoln appointed him the sixth Librarian of Congress.
Ainsworth Rand Spofford’s background
Ainsworth Rand Spofford was born on September 12, 1825 in Gilmanton, New Hampshire and moved to Cincinnati in 1844. There, he became a bookseller and publisher and spent his leisure time studying literature and modern languages. He helped found the Literary Club of Cincinnati in 1850. He also served as political correspondent and Assistant Editor of the Cincinnati Daily Commercial from 1859-1861. His first editorial attacked the city librarian’s naïve acquisitions practices.
Among his friends in Cincinnati were future congressman and President Rutherford B. Hayes. His time in Cincinnati gave him both the knowledge of books and the political savvy to transform the Library of Congress into a national library.
As a newspaperman, Spofford traveled to Washington to cover Abraham Lincoln’s inauguration. Stephenson offered him the position of Assistant Librarian of Congress and he accepted.
Spofford’s early years at the Library of Congress
When Spofford first joined the Library of Congress, at least five other American librarians had better and larger collections. No one in Congress had any interest in transforming the library into a national library. In fact, the idea had been floated and dismissed more than once. Nevertheless, Spofford immediately considered that he had started working for a national library.
In 1862, he wrote a report complaining about crowded conditions and Congress’ failure to complete the earlier expansion plans. He noted that the library hadn’t even acquired new furniture in all that time.
Architect of the Capitol Thomas U. Walker estimated that cost of the extension plus other modifications Spofford wanted would cost $160,000. Spofford saw to it that the Library’s budget request would include that full amount. On October 22, 1864, Spofford justified the request to the new Secretary of the Treasure, William Pitt Fessenden. He pointed out that the new Reading Room at the British Museum had cost half a million dollars. Lincoln appointed him as Librarian of Congress December 31, 1864.
The appropriation act of March 2, 1865 included everything Spofford asked for. Construction began under a new Architect of the Capitol, Edward Clark. Having Congressman Hayes and another friend, Wisconsin Senator Timothy Howe, on the Joint Committee on the Library, enabled Spofford to force Clark to change some of his plans.
In his first annual report as Librarian of Congress (December 3, 1866), Spofford noted that the remodeling would be completed within a month and that it would triple the Library’s space and safely accommodate about 210,000 volumes.
Outgrowing the new space
Under Spofford’s prodding, Congress took several actions that made the 1865 remodeling wholly inadequate. It approved transferring the Smithsonian Institution library collection to the Library of Congress. It appropriated $100,000 to purchase the large private library of Peter Force. And it designated Library of Congress as the copyright depository. Everything submitted for copyright automatically became part of the library’s collection.
Suddenly, the Library of Congress became the nation’s largest and most comprehensive library collection . In 1871 alone, the library acquired 19,826 items through copyright deposit. These included not only books and periodicals, but also musical scores, photographs, prints, maps, and other materials submitted for copyright.
Advocating for a new building
So Spofford devoted more than half of his 1872 annual report to advocating for a new, separate building to house the library’s rapidly growing collection. He concluded that it would be impossible to make sufficient additional space within the capitol complex itself. He argued that the new building should be fireproof, conveniently organized, and large enough for future expansion.
Spofford advocated following the new arrangement of British Museum. It boasted a central reading room with book alcoves radiating outward from it. He also insisted on five separate apartments with adequate space for the copyright depository, periodicals, maps, fine arts, and a packing room.
Furthermore, he anticipated that the Library of Congress collection would eventually become larger than both the British Museum and the French Bibliotheque Naionale. He expected that in a century the Library of Congress would house at least two and a half million volumes. (In fact, it reached sixteen million by 1972!)
A truly national library, he insisted, should house not only the nation’s best and most significant achievements. It also needed to preserve “the minor literature and the failures of our authors.” Otherwise, “American writers will be without the means of surveying the whole field trodden by their predecessors.” Meanwhile, the burgeoning collection overwhelmed the space.
The Library Committee accepted Spofford’s reasoning in 1873. It even appointed a commission to find a suitable location for a building and to supervise its construction. Spofford provided detailed specifications. The commission announced its selection of John L. Smithmeyer’s design from the ones submitted by 27 different architects.
Quibbling and delay in building the new Library of Congress
Given his decade-long success with Congress, Spofford anticipated that the work would go smoothly. Unfortunately, the Library Committee disliked the commission’s choices. Senator Howe had visited other national libraries on a European vacation. He persuaded the committee that Smithmeyer’s plan was “too small and plain” for an adequate national library. The full Congress quibbled about other issues.
By 1875, copyright deposits overwhelmed the library space. Congressmen who came to use the library found stacks of books and boxes piled on the floor. They had little room to do their work. In his obituary of Spofford, John Dudley Morgan implied that Spofford intended the utter chaos to convince members of Congress of the urgent need for a new building.
Spofford used all his political skill to make it happen. President Hayes called for a new building in his inauguration address in 1876. Senators made speeches in favor of it. Nothing happened.
In 1880, a commission of three architects declared it “inexpedient” to extend the capitol. But not until 1886 did Congress actually approve building a new. Spofford had the bill hand-delivered to President Cleveland for his signature. A three-member commission took over supervision of building it and formally hired Smithmeyer as architect. He became embroiled in various disputes.
In October 1888, Congress dissolved the commission and fired Smithmeyer. General Thomas Lincoln Casey, Chief of the US Army Corps of Engineers took over. He had already overseen construction of the Washington Monument and two other important buildings. He enjoyed good relations with Congress.
Casey was asked to submit a new plan for the building to cost no more than $4 million. He submitted two plans. He projected the second to cost $6 million. Spofford advocated the larger plan and Congress approved. Finally, construction proceeded smoothly.
The end of Spofford’s tenure as Librarian of Congress
Spofford had no interest in having the Library of Congress cooperate with other libraries. When the American Library Association was founded in 1876, Spofford had his hands full with lobbying for the new building. When the quibbling over the details started in 1886, Spofford locked horns with William Frederick Poole, director of the Chicago Public Library.
The Joint Committee for the Library held hearings on the condition of the Library of Congress in 1896. Spofford was the chief witness, but the ALA sent six librarians to testify. Melvil Dewey and Herbert Putnam in particular described a vision for the library very different from Spofford’s. They saw the Library of Congress not as aloof from other libraries but “a center to which the libraries of the whole country can turn for inspiration, guidance, and practical help.”
They did not directly criticize Spofford, but their testimony resulted in a major reorganization of the library’s administrative structure. Spofford was demoted to Chief Assistant Librarian. He continued working at the Library of Congress until his death in 1908.
Although his major achievements came from his organizational skill and political acumen, he had the reputation for having read every book in the collection! Morgan reported asking Spofford, just a year before his death, for information about medicine versus superstition. Off the top of his head, Spofford wrote a list of eleven books, along with the authors’ names and in some cases specific chapters.
Ainsworth Rand Spofford was also a prolific author of books and articles in newspapers, magazines, and encyclopedias. In 1894, he became a charter member and Vice President of the Columbia Historical Society.
Ainsworth Rand Spofford (1825-1908) / James Dudley Morgan, Proceedings of the Washington Academy of Sciences 10 (1908): 237-39
Ainsworth Rand Spofford (1825-1908): 6th Librarian of Congress 1864-1897 / Library of Congress
History of the Library of Congress / Library of Congress
The long, accident-prone history of getting the Library of Congress out of the Capitol / Alex Gangitano, Roll Call. August 8, 2017
A national monument for a national library: Ainsworth Rand Spofford and the new Library of Congress, 1871-1897 / John Y. Cole, Records of the Columbia Historical Society, Washington, D.C. 71/72 (1971): 468-507
Previous Librarians of Congress / Library of Congress